Like Maria Callas, opera singer Shirley Verrett was one of the few people who were blessed with elegance, acting ability, and an extremely rare voice. Verrett used her fabulous talent to overcome racism during the 1960s and has earned a place for herself among the greatest singers in history. It was announced today that she died in her sleep on November 4.
Verrett first came to the attention of the public when she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1961. This was a mere six years after contralto Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at this house.
Although Verrett began her career singing contralto and mezzo-soprano roles, she quickly proved that she was capable of singing much, much higher. She later said that, even though she knew she was a soprano, she kept singing mezzo roles because she loved them so much.
Shirley Verrett was one of those rare singers who could sing practically anything. Yes, she had the high range of a soprano; but, she also had a lower register that was a solid as a rock and an ability to sing coloratura that could put many lighter-voiced singers to shame.
Verrett made operatic history when she sang both Dido and Cassandra during the performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens which opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 1973-1974 season. She been scheduled to sing only one role but had volunteered at the last minute to replace an ailing Christa Ludwig.
During the late ’70s, as her voice reached its peak, Verrett began successfully tackling roles that required a higher range. She quickly became famous for the title roles of Tosca, Norma, and, last but not least, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.
In 1987, Verrett starred in the first movie version of Verdi’s Macbeth. Although her voice was no longer in its prime, the film captured her dramatic abilities perfectly.
Before retiring from the stage, Verrett made her Broadway debut singing Nettie Fowler in the 1994 revival of Carousal. During the late ’90s, she began teaching young singers. In 2003 she published an autobiography titled I Never Walked Alone. This book not only talks about her singing career but, more importantly, her struggles with racism.
There is, perhaps, no better way to end this tribute than with Shirley Verrett’s fiery rendition of Princess Eboli’s O Don Fatale from Verdi’s Don Carlo.